WASHINGTON – Legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law early Thursday didn’t just end the 16-day-old partial government shutdown and keep the country from potentially defaulting on its $17 trillion debt.
It also repaid $636 million to the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department — the combined amount they transferred from other accounts in their budgets to battle wildfires in the 2012-13 season.
The lion’s share — $600 million — would go to the Forest Service, which transferred an equivalent amount from other accounts to its fire-suppression account in August to make it through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The Interior Department, which transferred $36 million, oversees the U.S. Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Environmentalists say the reimbursement ensures that the agencies wouldn’t have to scrimp on preventive work such as removing dead trees and clearing underbrush to prepare for the next fire season. But they also said Congress should provide enough money up front so agencies don’t have to keep raiding other accounts, a tactic known as “fire borrowing” in bureaucratic parlance.
Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that writes the budgets for the Interior Department and federal environmental programs, lobbied to include the $636 million reimbursement in legislation to finance the government through Jan. 15 and extend the country’s borrowing authority until Feb. 7.
“Funding to restore budgets that have been drained through fire borrowing is a critical piece of this legislation,” Simpson said in a statement. “It means (the government) can do the restoration work and hazardous-fuels removal needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires next year.”
It’s unclear where the $636 million would come from. Simpson couldn’t be reached.
Alan Rowsome, a budget expert at The Wilderness Society, said Congress deserves credit for recognizing that the Forest Service and the Interior Department must be repaid. But he said the money will only pay for bills the government already has racked up, so it’s not new money aimed at beefing up the government’s firefighting programs.
Fire borrowing has become commonplace in recent years because Congress can’t seem to appropriate enough money to combat the blazes even though wildfires are increasing in number and intensity — especially out West, he said.
“This is a good, important step,” Rowsome said. “But I think it also underscores the fact that the way we’re budgeting for fires is not adequate.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, thinks the Obama administration also is to blame.
In a June letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the forest service, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and White House budget chief Sylvia Burwell, Wyden quibbled with the method they use to estimate wildfire budgets.
Calling fire borrowing “nonsensical,” Wyden urged the administration to come up with a new formula and to set aside more money in two reserve accounts created under a 2009 law.
Wyden also has blasted the administration for emphasizing fire suppression instead of fire prevention activities.
Contact Raju Chebium at email@example.com; Twitter: @rchebium